Fewer college students choose teaching. Will COVID dissuade more?

With pandemic’s corrosive impact, education professors concerned about profession
Overall, the number of teacher vacancies rose steadily between 2015 and 2019 in Georgia. Will COVID cause more teachers to quit and fewer future college students to enter the profession? (Sergio Flores/The New York Times)

Credit: Sergio Flores/The New York Times

Credit: Sergio Flores/The New York Times

Overall, the number of teacher vacancies rose steadily between 2015 and 2019 in Georgia. Will COVID cause more teachers to quit and fewer future college students to enter the profession? (Sergio Flores/The New York Times)

To understand the mounting frustration of Georgia teachers, scan the hundreds of comments on a Gwinnett County Public Schools Facebook post about reopening classrooms, comments all too typical of the charged debate about whether to reopen for face-to-face classes amid a COVID-19 surge.

In response to classroom teachers voicing fears over returning, a parent said, “Show up to work and do your job or quit and find a new job that will allow you to stay at home. So sick of this narrative.”

Another wrote, “I’ve seen so many teachers complaining about having to go to school, yet the beach, football games and other activities are fine to attend.”

Encountering these attitudes, teachers are wondering if the job is worth it. Surveys by Education Week chart declining morale as the pandemic persists. In August, 32% of teachers said they are likely to leave their jobs this year even though they would have been unlikely to do so prior to the pandemic. Only a few months earlier, in May, 12% felt that way.

On Monday, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators released a survey of 6,300 Georgia educators in which about 14% with 20 or fewer years of experience said they will likely leave the profession in the next five years, while 29% said they will likely depart within 10 years. Salary and school leadership were the most often-cited causes of attrition.

But will teachers leave?

At a media forum Friday, Dana Rickman, vice president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, talked about teacher shortages in the state. For the 2019-2020 school year, pre-pandemic, Georgia was already facing shortages in math and science in grades 6-12 and special education across all K-12 grades, she said. Overall, the number of teacher vacancies rose steadily between 2015 and 2019.

“If we don’t do something about it, we could get to a crisis situation relatively quickly,” said Rickman in an interview after the forum. “There are some schools and districts and special subjects that are already at a crisis point.”

COVID is not helping. Teachers have lost trust due to a lack of transparency around COVID data and decision-making on reopenings, said Rickman, adding, “Teachers are feeling much abused at this point.”

The Center for American Progress, in a report released a year ago on enrollment in teacher prep programs, found fewer college students seeking education degrees. The study found about a 40% decline in enrollment in Georgia teacher prep programs between 2010 and 2018. And, in the new PAGE survey, nearly 46% of educators with 20 years or less said they would not recommend education as a career.

Among those worried about the future of the profession is DeKalb educator Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. “The educators entering the field 10 years from now are in middle school, and those students are witnessing that, over the last couple of months, the tone and tenor has changed from one of gratitude and respect for educators to a disregard for educators and disrespect for the profession.”

I asked several education professors how the COVID-19 fallout will affect enrollment in colleges of education.

“I am sure there will be a dip until schools are safe from this deadly virus. Many prospective teachers know teachers in their families and friendship circles, so are hearing firsthand how callous many administrators are about their well-being,” said Peter Smagorinsky, Distinguished Research Professor of English Education emeritus at the University of Georgia. “Those who read the AJC can hardly be encouraged by stories of deaths on faculties, essays by teachers bailing from their jobs, and administrators’ declarations that everything is fine.”

While Smagorinsky says he worries fewer young people will pursue a profession where they will be unappreciated, UGA’s education classes remain populated. “Yet, the University of South Florida has closed its undergraduate education programs, and that may be a bad omen for the rest,” he said. “I hope for the best, and fear for the worst.” (USF blamed dwindling enrollment. The program had 1,066 undergraduates in 2019, compared to 2,893 in 2009.)

Education professor Bryan Sorohan of Gainesville warns that regardless of how many new teachers may be in the pipeline right now, Georgia must produce enough to not only replace those who are leaving but to meet new population growth.

“It also takes three to four years to train a teacher properly and professionally, at least in terms of the requirements schools of education work under. We may not see the real shortage for some time,” he said. “If parents do not want their children taught by people with completely inadequate training in classes of 40 or more, they certainly aren’t acting like it.”

Political scientist Robert Anthony Maranto holds the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and has served on a local school board. “There is less respect for teachers than in the old days, so people of talent tend to go into areas with more money and respect, especially when the economy is good,” he said. “Teachers get less respect from parents, as part of a general and sometimes positive tendency on the part of all Americans to question authorities of all kinds.”

Schools and teachers are also carrying larger loads, said Maranto, explaining, “Schools now do feeding, health care, emotional support. This broader range of goals is probably beyond both what most schools and individual teachers can handle. It is certainly broader than what schools do in most other countries.”

Stephanie Jones, the UGA Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice, believes the treatment of teachers during the pandemic could expand teacher unions.

“After living through the short-lived hero status in the spring of 2020, and then being forced to do the impossible in the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021, teachers will be hyperaware of the essential role they play in this country’s overall economy and realize the power they could wield when they act as a collective,” she said. “As working conditions improve in classrooms and school buildings, more people will feel that teaching can be a sustainable and fulfilling career.”

She also said young people may be called to education careers after living the “pain of the pandemic, systemic racism, systemic misogyny, economic despair and polarized social and political divisions.”

“They are witnessing the consequences of our country’s flirtatious relationship with fascism, and they are not as easily deluded by disinformation in media as their parents and grandparents,” Jones said. “They are an extremely smart and activist generation, and many of them will find education to be an inspiring and inspired space for working with children and youth toward a better today and tomorrow.”

Jones expects the teaching ranks — still largely white and middle-class — to diversify, but says colleges of education must change. “I don’t want to sound cliché, but this is a profoundly different moment we are living in and our work is to meet this moment and do something very different with it and with our students,” she said. “If colleges of education are known as exciting, intellectually stimulating, and inspiring places where academic learning meets everyday life, the students will come.”